You sleep on it at night, you dry yourself with it after a shower, and you’re probably even wearing it right now.
Despite being so common and so useful (it represents nearly half the fibre used in the textile industry), cotton has a dark side. The story of the way cotton is grown, harvested and produced has some nasty truths that impact our planet and its people.
Cotton is sometimes referred to as White Gold because of how lucrative it is in developing nations, like Uzbekistan. But what are the actual facts behind these claims and how can we make sure the cotton we wear and use has cared for the earth, waterways and the people who helped make our garments?
The Sad Truth – Cotton
Cotton is the thirstiest crop in the world. It requires a shocking 2,700 litres of water to produce a single t-shirt! To put that outrageous figure into perspective, that’s enough water for one person to drink for 900 days.
The production process for conventional cotton uses a massive 16% of the world’s insecticides; more than any other crop in the world. Pesticides can infect local waterways, destroying the environment and harming animals. Pests continually build a resistance to the chemicals used, so new pesticides are continuously developed, resulting in greater pesticide use and spiralling costs for farmers.
Pesticide poisoning isn’t limited to the environment. Food and water supplies can be easily contaminated from runoff, and it’s the local communities, sometimes already facing hardship, that suffer through disease, illness and even birth defects.
In many developing countries, cotton is hand-picked. In countries like Uzbekistan and India, it is usually children who do this backbreaking work, taking them away from pursuing a life-changing education while running the risk of injury and illness.
Want to know more about cotton? Have a look at our “How Ethical is Cotton?” material guide.
The Alternative – Organic Cotton
But it’s not all bad news! Organic cotton is an incredible, sustainable solution, which is grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds which have not been genetically modified.
Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land even stays fertile much longer than land which is hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise.
The benefits are clear; using fewer pesticides means that the health of workers improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because it is not being damaged by chemicals.
On the social front, organisations, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), have been working to make sure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people’s lives.
GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of textiles, ensuring that both environmental and social standards, such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination and fair pay rates, are respected.
By seeking out organic cotton alternatives to everyday products, you can quickly act ethically and sustainably by encouraging the production of cotton grown without pesticides and reduce harm for the planet and people!
A Couple of Things to Note
We know that consumers are increasingly looking for products that are better for them and for the environment. The search for ‘organic’ products began in the food industry and is now reaching the fashion industry, with more and more brands starting to offer organic options (the most recent is Primark, which launched its first organic denim jeans) to their consumers.
However, organic cotton production is not perfect: because organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it requires more plants and so more land to produce. And we know that cotton is a thirsty crop, which requires a lot of watering and tending to. According to Cotton, Inc. conventional cotton requires 290 gallons of water to produce a t-shirt, while organic cotton is said to need 660 gallons. This can especially be a concern in water-stressed regions, such as India. What’s more, organic farming has been linked to higher greenhouse gas emissions.
Plus, before the organic fibre is turned into your favourite t-shirt, it requires lots of processing and dying, which are also very chemically intensive. Unless the item garment is GOTS certified, it can be hard to tell if the dyes used in production were organic or not.
Nowadays, using the word ‘Organic’ can be in incredibly persuasive: beware of greenwashing and of fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.
But don’t get us wrong, organic cotton, if sustainably and ethically produced, is a beautiful alternative to conventional cotton.
As always, if you want to have a better impact on the people and the planet, we recommend buying less and buying better, by checking your favourite brands on the Good on You app and (recently launched, yay) web directory! We’ve also listed a few of our favourite organic brands below:
Where to Buy Organic Cotton